Shaya Cohen -


What Are OUR Unexamined Assumptions?

I was educated to be an historian, which helps explain why I take the long view. It also helps explain why, like a moth to a flame, I am attracted to counterfactuals, the “what would have happened instead, if only…” that were based on what we now know to be bad assumptions.

History is full of these. Stalin and Hitler both assumed that wealth is found in resources, not people – and so they thought that killing people would make other people richer. They did not understand that people, not stuff, are the best source of wealth in the world. Those bad assumptions led to the Holodomor and the Holocaust and much else besides. Erroneous inputs lead to really terrible outputs.

The Jewish revolts against the Romans were built on the assumptions that the Jewish people were supposed to be an independent nation (instead of an essentially-federated vassal state). Those assumptions were not sourced in Judaism, but instead in mimicry of other peoples. And the results were catastrophic: countless lives were lost. The Jews went into exile for 2,000 years and were almost extinguished along the way (apparently all blood-line Ashkenazi Jews today are descended from a gene pool that, 1,000 years ago, was only 135 people).

Modern Israel is in a deep constitutional crisis. The forces of modern nationhood are trying to lock in veto power against a demographic tide that seeks majoritarian control. It is a battle for the soul of the nation. But both sides are relying on rotten assumptions, which means that “victory” for either side today will have deeply undesirable second and third-order effects. (Here is a quite-good proposed constitutional fix that would, in my opinion, be a superb solution).

All too often we try to be victims, to blame others, or circumstances, for the world around us. Far too many of us insist on being victims, when the solution is to change the path we are on, the choices we make.

I believe that we are responsible for ourselves, for our surroundings, for our communities and nations – and yes, ultimately, civilization itself. It sounds like a tall order, but the real challenge is always the mindset with which we approach things – the assumptions that underpin all of our thinking.

For example: is America for Americans? Or is it only for citizens who are willing to share its ideals? Indeed, might America, the idea, really be for any and all people in the world who share the American ideals?

This is a big question. And people tend to answer this question instinctively, without examining their own assumptions to see whether they are indeed correct.

Is America’s highest aspiration to be the country for the American people? After all, if a nation only serves its people, then what makes any nation better than any other?

The very same question can – and should – be asked about Israel. Is Israel a nation for Israeli citizens? Or is it a nation for Jewish/Torah ideals? What are the underlying assumptions about the value of human life and freedom that should form the foundation of any constitution or governmental system?

These seem like abstract questions: they are anything but. A nation that does not believe each person has a soul on loan from G-d has no problem treating people like commodities or chattel. These assumptions matter. Is there a bedrock that we should be anchored to, in order to keep from floating away along with passing fancies and the flotsam of convenient crises?

I look at myself, and have to honestly ask the question: if I flatter myself to think that my thoughts matter… who will look back at me and, with the benefit of hindsight, say, “That guy… if only he had examined his assumptions more carefully… he would not have made that serious misstep.”

I think the question is one we should all be able to ask ourselves, out loud. What are our misplaced priorities and assumptions that historians will later realize were our Achilles heel?

P.S. Similarly, the assumption that the Temple needed to be large and grand, was, I believe, a major error. The assumptions that underpinned the desire to be a Big Deal were, in hindsight, clearly not found in the Torah and should have had no part in the thinking of the Jewish people during the times of the Second Temple.

Comments are welcome!

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